By Chris Ngwodo.
Chinua Achebe was once asked why his novels did not feature a clear Manichaean divide between the oppressors and the oppressed or between good proletarian heroes and evil bourgeois fat cats. He replied, “If you create a class situation in which your hero comes completely heroic, never tells a lie, knows all the correct answers, is faultless and the oppressor is a hundred percent villain with no redeeming features whatsoever and the people, of course, are angelic…there is no cynicism among them, then you create a kind of world which has no contact with the world I know. And I say, no, this world is not true. Therefore If I pretend that it is true, I am dishonest.”
In other words, the narrative of a public order divided between angelic masses and demonic patricians is unrealistic. In Nigeria, it is outrightly bogus, and it is intellectually fraudulent to pretend otherwise. We live in a realm in which the line between oppressor and oppressed is blurred.
In response to the government’s restructuring of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), the Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association (PENGASSAN) and National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG) – who are not shareholders but employees, promptly embarked on an unannounced strike claiming that they had not been “carried along.” The NNPC, a conglomerate of labyrinthine dimensions, has long operated as a state within a state – culturally secretive, typically unaccountable, mostly unaudited, unprofitable and uncompetitive compared to other state-owned oil companies. It seems as much a cult as it is a corporation.
Restructuring the NNPC to operate accountably, efficiently, and profitably, is entirely in the national interest. At this point, it is not even clear that the administration’s announced measures (so far) go far enough in this direction. Certainly, Emmanuel Ibe Kachikwu’s insistence that the restructuring will not cost anyone their jobs seems rather suspect. It is inconceivable that the NNPC could be so dysfunctional and graft-ridden and none of its employees are culpable. But at least, the administration is starting on a path that should lead to a healthier NNPC. The unions’ snap reaction to the new measures apparently before they had even understood them telegraphed their fear of losing the benefits they enjoy in a broken system.
It is not only oil sector unions that obstruct reform. The National Union of Teachers has opposed performance-based evaluations for teachers in public schools, apparently because it believes that teachers employed at public expense should be steadily promoted through the ranks regardless of their actual performance even as the terminal decay of the public education system deepens. In 2006, Oby Ezekwesili’s ambitious reform of decrepit and mismanaged unity schools to make them more efficient was also stalled by unions which falsely claimed that the schools were going to be “privatised” as though privatisation is a mortal sin.
We must understand the psychology that drives this form of labour action. There are forces which profiteer from the pervasive dysfunction of the public sector. Rent-seeking has infected both politics and civil society, and has poisoned the wells of activism. Labour agitations are aimed at securing the employees of an ineffective bureaucracy. It never questions the anti-meritocratic basis of public sector recruitment.
In their defence, labour unionists privately (and at times, publicly) argue that they live in a reality in which federal legislators pocket in excess of a hundred times the national GDP. Simultaneously, the spectacle of criminally neglected pensioners reduced to begging for their entitlements (which are often remorselessly pillaged) and dying while waiting offers an enduring object lesson on the need for civil servants to acquire social security for life by any means necessary, including paralysing the entire country by industrial action. Public sector unions use strikes to negotiate for their own share of the national cake. Thus, the language of industrial disputes is often militant with striking workers inclined to extract every concession without compromise. Patriotism rarely neuters the pangs of self-interest.
Neo-Marxist mythology defines the working class as a morally flawless category. We drape the “masses” in the robes of long-suffering sainthood and idealise their heroic unions as the forces of proletarian light ranged against the dark forces of bourgeois decadence. Achebe rejected this simplistic formulation and so should we. Nigeria’s famously tardy government employees are far from blameless in the dilapidation of the public sector. The labour leadership is part of the establishment and their followers are, for the most part, enthusiastic accomplices in the campaign to preserve the status quo. Contrary to the assertion of labour populists, the worker is not always right. More frequently than not, the unions will be on the wrong side of the battles over public sector reform that are certain to occur in the coming days.
Labour obstructionism is driven by the instinctive perpetuation of privilege and the notion that the civil service is a welfare system that should perpetually accommodate all employees including the redundant, the inept and the corrupt. When the Buhari administration faces the inevitable necessity of streamlining a bloated, corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy, there will be yet more obstructionism by unionists seeking to safeguard their sinecures. The administration must present its case intelligently in the court of public opinion. It must show how the interests of the unions (and their allies) pale in comparison to the overall interests of 160 million people. We will have to determine at what point the strike option, especially by those in critical sectors, ceases to be legitimate activism and becomes economic sabotage.
Chris Ngwodo (@chrisngwodo) is a writer, consultant and analyst.